Dogs Are Not Wolves

By Ross Pomeroy - RCP Staff
August 04, 2020
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I recently adopted a puppy. She's a cute dog – people say she resembles a fox or a little auburn wolf.

The latter description is one that many dog owners have taken to heart with their own canine companions. Swayed by marketing, influential trainers on television, and online blogs, they've decided that treating their slobbering pooches like wolves is a good idea.

Wolves and dogs diverged from their last common ancestor between roughly 11,000 and 41,000 years ago. Though tens of thousands of years and numerous genetic mutations separate them, they still share 99.9% of their DNA. Citing these intimate links, some suggest that you should train your dog like a wolf. Chiefly, you should be your dog's "alpha" or pack leader. This entails getting your dog to 'submit' when he or she steps out of line or misbehaves. The idea is that their missteps are truly attempts to gain dominance over you. This means you should respond with strategies like rolling them onto their backs or forcing their heads into the ground. Unfortunately, all these techniques accomplish is instilling fear in your dog. Your pet learns that humans can be harsh creatures, and their touch, a scary thing to be avoided.

While dogs can sometimes look live wolves, their behavior differs from wolves' just as our behavior differs from chimpanzees. Sure, humans share 98.8% of our DNA with chimps, but you wouldn't eat the lice out of your family members' hair, would you?

Even if your answer is "yes," the science underlying the notion that we should be dominant over our dogs has actually been debunked. It originated from social dominance theory, which arose from researchers observing how wolves interacted in captivity back in the 1970s. Wolves thrown together into a group seemed to take on a pecking order of sorts. However, when scientists observed wolves in the wild years later, they behaved much differently, choosing to live in family units of parents and pups.

Rather than transforming your household into a wolf pack, there is a better, more evidence-based way to train dogs. As students learn in the course Companion Animal Biology and Care at the Univerity of Illinois, "The majority of behaviors owners want to modify are excessive vocalization, unruly greetings, and failure to come when called... These behaviors often occur because they have been inadvertently rewarded or because the dog has not been trained in appropriate behavior to do instead."

Thus, you should reward your dog with treats, pets, and praise when he performs behaviors you like and ignore him when he doesn't. Say your dog barks or tries to jump up on the table when you're eating. Wait out his cries and turn your back to him. Eventually he will calm down. As soon as he does, toss him a treat. This can be a trying experience, but it almost always ends in success provided you're consistent with your reinforcement.

Unlike wolves, dogs are uniquely prone to bond with humans, an ingrained relationship developed over tens of thousands of years of artificial selection.

"The relationship has become so close that even our brains are in sync," Brain Handwerk reported at Smithsonian. "When humans and dogs gaze lovingly into one another’s eyes, each of their brains secretes oxytocin, a hormone linked to maternal bonding and trust. Other mammal relationships, including those between mom and child, or between mates, feature oxytocin bonding, but the human/dog example is the only case in which it has been observed at work between two different species."

Your dog is a dog, not a wolf. So don't dominate it, love it.

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